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Worked Like a Dog: In the Field with Conservation Canines

 We sent Alli, our resident ultra runner and ski mountaineer, to California to spend a few days in the field with the Conservation Canines. Her mission was to get to know our CK9 partners a little better and gain first-hand experience with the work they do. She was also collecting feedback on our products and their performance in the field. And of course, we knew she'd have some fun. Alli is no stranger to steep, rugged terrain and long, grueling days in the mountains. We figured she’d fit right in and have no problem keeping up with these working dogs and handlers. Yet, we would all soon discover that Alli was in for the adventure of her summer.

Sweat rolls down my cheek and drips off the end of my chin. I'm entangled in yet another network of invisible spider webs. A stabbing pain strikes the inside of my knee. I cry out, “OW!”

Dog and handler work to follow scent.

Photo: Allison Miles

I continue repeating "Ow!" like a mantra. Tears are blurring my vision. Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry.

Working dog in custom harness and handler sit on rock during break in the woods.

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

"Ah, yellow jackets," says Caleb. He and Winnie are down the slope ahead of me. We're several hours into a sweltering mid-July day in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Winnie working to follow a scent.

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Winnie is leading our team. She's a petite black lab with brown doe eyes and a sweet demeanor. Caleb is a Conservation Canines handler and Winnie's working partner. We’re searching for scat deposited by Pacific fisher, an elusive carnivorous mammal faced with shrinking habitat and the threat of extinction.


Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Winnie uses her sharp nose and extreme drive to locate Pacific fisher scat in the woods and near streams. With each find, Caleb rewards her with a toy.

Winnie in custom web master harness plays with a ball on break.

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

I clamp my hand to my knee. The area around the sting is beginning to swell. Hours from the car, our only option is to keep moving. We descend a steep drainage and climb up and over a granite slab. Among a maze of manzanita, the stunted trees reach out to grab my clothing, hat, pack, and ankles. Unfazed by her surroundings, Winnie continues locating fisher scat. I jump every time I hear an insect buzzing.

Detection Dog Winnie works to follow a scent along a down tree.

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Finally, we return to camp to find shade and rest. I inspect the burrs embedded in my shoes, peel off my dusty socks, and doze in my camp chair. How will I survive two more days?

Alli's shoes and socks covered in burrs.

Photo: Allison Miles

For Winnie, it's just another day's work.

Detection Dog Winnie leaps over a down tree.

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Conservation Canines deploys their scat detection dogs on projects around the world. Using non-invasive techniques, they're able to collect information on threatened and endangered wildlife. CK9 teams have searched the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California for Pacific fisher scat since 2006. Fisher, a large member of the weasel family, face the threat of a shrinking habitat. Today, the Sierras represent the southern-most part of the fisher’s range. The data collected on this project helps shape a better understanding of fisher biology. Scat samples provide a location for habitat use, prey remains and hormone levels. This information serves as an indicator of the stress associated with habitat change.

Winnie is a true daredevil when it comes to looking for fisher scat. She has little fear when climbing rock faces or navigating the forest highways built by fallen timber. One of my favorite characteristics of Win-Win is her responsiveness. She aims to please and puts a great deal of trust in me. Our communication is strong. She tells me when she's thirsty, rests when she gets a little overheated, climbs my back to reach high places and even jumps down into my arms on an otherwise risky descent. Winnie poops roses.”Caleb, Winnie’s CK9 Handler

Special thanks to Jaymi Heimbuch for bringing this and other Conservation Canines stories to life through photography. See more of her wildlife & conservation work.